On March 21th Libby Nieburg, a most remarkable woman and my longtime friend, a friend of New Hope, lost her over 30 year battle with cancer.
This piece, authored by Daniel Brooks, appeared in the New Hope Gazette in 2010. It was Libby’s favorite biography, as she often commented, and encapsulates her life, work and ‘A+ attitude’ about how to navigate the fate of life.
The Yiddish word “beshert” translates as events, which seem fated to happen or, as commonly stated, “it is meant to be.” Surprising but aptly self-described as “shy and retiring” when petite “carrot top” Libby Nieburg finally sat with me outdoors on a luminous late summer afternoon, it quickly unfolded that her life had hinged on fate. She personifies it with every chapter: go-go girl Libby of the “60’s; “Gordon’s Libby” as girlfriend, wife, and mother of 38 years; “Mrs. Nieburg” to countless kindergarten kids for 35 years; and most recently as “Libby the village icon” here in New Hope. Each of her roles has involved some element of “beshert.” She smiled that smile of hers that lights the day even brighter as she spoke of her life and it is apparent that she relishes in the thought that none of it was planned. It all “just happened.”
While most of us are very aware of Gordon Nieburg, New Hope’s “Jimmy Olsen”/pictorial historian, who is the more boisterous and apparent of the duo, few of us are aware of how much “Mr.” relies on “Mrs.” by his side. And generally there, setting up photoshoots for the photographer and diligently jotting details that he will soon forget, is Libby Nieburg. They met quite by chance when she was teaching for Head Start in North Philadelphia She was engaged to marry someone else but had broken it off, uncertain that he was Mr. Right. To console herself she took a carefree “Thelma and Louise” vacation with girlfriends to upstate New York and, shortly after her gallivant return, she met Gordon. He was actually dating her assistant teacher. One day she needed a lift home from the school and he volunteered–the chemistry that still is apparent between them happened right away and from then she has never left his side. It was fate.
“Gordon is a few years older than me so while we were both from the same section of Northeast Philadelphia and went to the same schools he was ahead of me, therefore I never knew him,” she recalls.” His family lived in a huge house while mine did not. His parents, though Jewish, were not religious while mine were.” She describes the Gordon of those days as “very rebellious” while she always “followed the rules. I always walked on the sidewalk and never the grass.” The contrasts between them were remarkable. “We lived in the same neighborhood but in different worlds.” Yet “something” drew them together.
I noted that many of the pictures in the “early years” scrapbook she showed me were taken in New Hope. It turns out that their very first dates were in the borough. As Gordon’s wife, Libby inherited two of his children from a first marriage and they often brought the kids on visits to New Hope. While she worked in the same classroom in Northeast Philadelphia throughout her teaching career and raised her family in Bensalem, “New Hope was always a part of my life”, she says sweetly and genuinely about our community. When the kids grew up and flew the coupe, the Nieburg’s first thought was to move to Florida’s west coast, but found the area somewhat dull and uninspiring. Something was missing and they recalled that the “something” could be had in Bucks County.
The day they put down a deposit on a townhouse in Washington Crossing they went to Mother’s restaurant to celebrate and, in another chance coincidence, they passed a sign pointing them to the new Riverwoods development. “Something told us that we should look before we leap.” They decided that they belonged in New Hope and it has been their happy homestead now for the past eight years. “We are back to where we began,” she beams. “We have come full circle.”
Throughout her career, Nieburg gave an A-plus performance in her classroom, beloved by parents and children alike and winning many awards. Her method of teaching parallels her life philosophy: any given concept can be expanded and embellished to its fullest extent. Now retired from teaching, Nieburg loves the fact that, after so many years working in the closed environment of her safe, cozy, nurturing but cloistered classroom, she is able to get up each day and do what she wants. She is able to enjoy the seasons and be a part of many aspects of life’s light instead of often going to work and returning in the dark. “I can enjoy the winter rather than dreading it.”
In the beginning of retirement, however, she was bored. “I had been used to sitting behind a desk every day, having lesson plans and purpose for each activity.” To her surprise she found that she had nothing in particular to do. She needed more than fancy dinners out and trips to shows, she told me. One day, she and Gordon strolled New Hope and ran into Geri Delevich and Rey Velesco who walked up to them, introduced themselves, and urged them to register to vote and get involved. It was again “fate” pointing her toward volunteering.
From that chance meeting, Delevich enlisted Nieburg for her community debut as an event coordinator. “It was a New Hope Partners in Progress (PiP) meeting and Geri turned to me and said ‘I want YOU to plan a barge ride’ and that was that” she recounts. “I was the new kid in town and I had to prove myself” She found resources to provide refreshments, got the barge donated and achieved both a successful event and a reputation as a community go-getter. She continued with PiP, joined the NH Chamber of Commerce and helped organize their events–most recently “Queen For A Day”. She joined Concordia, the chamber music group, setting up “Informances” which enabled grade school children to be introduced to the art of chamber music. The detailed work of coordinating the various parts that compose big events suited her nature. “Whatever I do: working out, keeping my house, taking care of my husband, running events–I strive for perfection. I try to be A-plus”.
However the desire to put “heart and soul” into projects took a toll. Genetically predisposed and at risk when under stress, last year Nieburg had a recurrence of cancer, which she first successfully fought 22 years ago. During the past year she again beat it, thanks to
chemotherapy. Always the optimist, although Nieburg shed her signature “Twiggy-like” locks of hair, she never lost her characteristically cheerful “can do” attitude. She continued her fierce fitness routine, she kept following the medical rules and the locks have grown back. She draws comparatives in her illnesses, two decades apart. “Then it was something no one talked about. I had no one to commiserate with.” To compensate today, she is extremely vocal about her fight. Says Nieburg: “I now know that it is nothing I did or didn’t do. I was born with the gene. I know that I am mortal and no longer fear dying. I refuse to fear the word ‘cancer’.” In characteristic form she adds: “Health issues can be fate but they can be influenced proactively. You may be fated to a gene, but there are things that you can do to help deal with the disease. Work out. Eat well. Volunteer!”
For her presence in our community and all the “A-plus” elements which she brings us everyday, when it comes to Libby Nieburg, we are the lucky ones blessed by “beshert”.